A Personal Matter


WARNING: May contain triggers for those who have experienced rape.

I've written before about how novellas sometimes sneak up on me, taking a while to build up and becoming truly engaging just as they're about to end. I suppose that one sure-fire way to avoid this syndrome is to start your novella like Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter: full-throttle intensity from the first page, when the atmosphere of subtly grotesque alienation is already fully developed, and the reader seems to be thrust down into the midst of an interpersonal wound of a situation—one that that has obviously been festering for some time. Long before the protagonist Bird hears the news, on page 15, that there is something abnormal about the baby his wife has been laboring for hours to deliver, it's already plain that he perceives the world around him in a skewed and deeply estranged way. The most ordinary details around him, such as the "small and soiled" hands of a cashier, "the meagerness of her fingers recall[ing] chameleon legs clinging to a shrub," or the "mean sky that seemed ashamed, roughly violated by clouds like galloping shaggy dogs," suggest a grotesqueness, a fun-house quality that constantly prevents Bird from getting his bearings or even keeping his balance. His dreams are vivid and disturbing, and his life has the quality of a dream as well: seemingly stalled at an emotional age of about fourteen, he has somehow ended up married to a woman he seems hardly to know and to whom he feels little connection, with a job he dreams of chucking and fleeing to Africa, and he wakes up one morning after a fistfight with a gang of street toughs to discover that he is the father of baby with a severely malformed brain.

A Personal Matter is the story of a man's coming to terms with his deformed baby, but writing out the plot like that suggests a very different book than the one Oe has actually written. For one thing, it implies that Bird is a sympathetic character: who could withhold sympathy from a man who has just suffered such a horrendous blow? But in fact Oe's protagonist is deeply unsympathetic—a result, of course, of his own inability to feel love, connection, or sympathy with anyone around him. A more alienated (in the sociological sense) character I've seldom read: not only does Bird seem to lack any loyalty to or love for his wife, son, and family, but he has fantasies about extremely violent and taboo actions (like killing his mistress and raping her dead body, for example, not to mention the central conflict of the book: whether he will kill what he considers his "monster baby" or raise it as a son). Unsurprisingly, he also has the classic feeling of enacting a role, that all actions left to him are empty performances and that no mode of behavior has any "reality":

Bird turned around, as if to make certain of an escape route: paused along the dim corridor, young women in their nightgowns were peering at him through the dimness. Bird considered scowling back but he merely shook his head weakly and turned his back, then gave a timid knock at the door. He was performing the role of the young husband who has been visited by sudden misfortune.

But it's not just Bird. The whole society in which he lives is similarly alienated. His mother-in-law actively encourages Bird to lie to his wife (her daughter) about what's wrong with the baby, and to encourage it to weaken and die, because otherwise (as she says), her "little girl will never agree to have another child." Honesty and the mental health of the wife/daughter/mother take second place to the vague cultural mandate that a woman should produce multiple babies; the behavior I expect from a woman's own mother is turned on its head. Similarly, in one of the most grotesque scenes in the novella, the doctor at the hospital where Bird's baby is born refuses even to refer to him as an infant, instead scoffing when Bird announces that he is "the father," asking whether Bird wants to "see the goods" (meaning his son), and giggling as he informs the Bird that his son appears to have two heads. At every possible turn, the people in the society depicted desert, betray, and fail to connect with one another; and while this doesn't make Bird's behavior likable, it at least provides a context in which to place him. As much as I might be repulsed by Bird at times, it is hard to come up with a more logical or compassionate mode of behavior, when everyone around him is also so alienated and even vindictive.

Oe does a good job of keeping the onus of Bird's complexes and dubious behaviors on his own shoulders, while at the same time examining the external factors at play. It becomes plain, about halfway through the novella, that one of the main sources of this society-wide disorientation is the outcome of World War II and the role of the nuclear bomb in ending it. Set in 1961, and involving Kruschev's announcement of the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing which eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, A Personal Matter is also dealing with an overtly political matter: the devastating consequences of 200,000 dead and a traditional way of life shattered, with no viable alternative yet developed. Bird and those around him continue to act their parts, perform their roles as more or less traditional members of society (marrying, having children) despite the fact that those roles have lost their power to provide meaningful self-definition for those who practice them. The people of Bird's generation have been defined by a huge event which they nevertheless were too young to actively affect or understand:

If he had ever been to war, Bird thought often, he would have been able to say definitely whether he was a brave type. This had occurred to him before fights and before his entrance examinations, even before his marriage. And always he had regretted not having a definite answer. Even his longing to test himself in the wilds of Africa which opposed the ordinary was excited by his feeling that he might discover in the process his own private war.

Bird is defined by war, but has never been to war; he has never grown up, but is somehow a father in his late 20s. As much as I was sometimes very put off by the violence and alienation of Bird's consciousness, I think I understood the root and necessity of them by the end of the novella. It was harder work to like this book than Oe's 1990 novel A Quiet Life (the only other book by him I've read), and definitely harder to like its protagonist, but in the end I found it at least equally powerful.

And speaking of A Quiet Life, the contrast between the two books was fascinating. One could argue that both novels are thinly-veiled autobiography, but the events of A Personal Matter take place thirty years earlier, and whereas the earlier work is told from a limited third-person perspective focused on the young Bird, the later one (narrated in first-person by the Bird-like character's daughter) presents him character at a vast remove, a delicate yet enigmatic father-figure whose for whose periodic breakdowns every character has a different explanation. The atmospheres of the two books, though similar in their masterful craftsmanship, are likewise radically different, for while Ma-Chan lives in a more or less benign environment (bad things happen, but her existence is more or less quiet and thoughtful), Bird's world is so fraught with menace that he can barely step outside without being threatened by something or someone. In A Quiet Life, the wild lack of any foothold has been replaced with a semi-distant but nonetheless caring, engaged family life, and the mystery behind Ma-chan's father's persistent melancholia is a somewhat intellectual one. On the contrary, Bird can hardly get his breath in his surroundings, let alone think calmly or selflessly enough to engage in a passionate conversation about Vonnegut or Céline. Although I was initially wary when I heard that Oe returns again and again, in his novels, to the theme of his brain-damaged son, I'm now very intrigued and eager to read more of his novels, to explore the different angles from which he approaches his repeated subject.


A Personal Matter was the July pick for the Non-Structured Book Group; join us in August for In the American Grain, by William Carlos Williams.


  • That does sound very powerful. But also quite depressing. I've not yet read anything by Oe, though I do have "something by Oe" on my mental TBR list . . . I don't think I'll start with this one.

  • The Oe book I read was Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age, which has been labeled "fiction" but is very much a memoir. Do you think A Personal Matter was the same way or is it more fictionalized? I'm hoping for the latter - Bird does sound a seriously messed-up guy.

    (Rouse Up actually discusses A Personal Matter in a couple places and deals with the theme of repressed violence. I'll have to expand on that.)

  • I think your analysis of looking at this as a consequense of WWII is very convincing. I hadn't thought it through as much as you have and I can certainly see that you might be right.

  • Stellar review as always Emily. Thanks for expounding upon the cultural and historical implications of Bird's existence. It's fascinating and disturbing to think of how much of an impact those events would have had (and still have?) on Bird's and the next generations. Oe built an amazing atmosphere. It was hard to breath at times while reading this...! Great writing, tough book.

  • Kathy: I would highly recommend A Quiet Life as a good starting-place for Oe. The protagonist Ma-chan is extremely sympathetic; I just loved her so much. And the atmosphere, as in A Personal Matter is realized to a pitch-perfect degree.

    EL Fay: I would call this fiction, albeit fiction that (I hear) draws heavily on his autobiography. The way it's structured, though, the type of prose, the third-person narration, all kinds of little clues in the book, speak to me more as fiction or fictionalized autobiography than actual memoir. That would be yet another interesting twist on these same events, though; I look forward to your post.

  • Iris: I think without the WWII lens through which to read, I would have found this novel way over-the-top, almost incomprehensible. As it was I thought it was a rich read, so I'm glad you think I could be right about the war connection. :-)

    Sarah: Thanks! Yeah, it's chilling to think about the aftermath of the bombs, especially as an American. Oddly, I had never really thought about the Japanese reception to the escalating nuclear threats between the US & Soviet Russia, but now that I think about it of COURSE it would have been a huge deal there.

  • Loved your post, agree with most of what you say about this book's framework, etc., Emily, and yet I had a completely different reaction to A Personal Matter's charms! I pretty much hated the work because of what I saw as Oë's over the top writing and one-dimensional characters. That the ending felt so contrived and preachy didn't help either, but by the end I was rolling my eyes at Oë's language of all things. Which kind of sucks, 'cause I felt the first couple of chapters were very promising. Anyway, looking forward to seeing if I'm the only "hater" this time around, ha ha!

  • I hadn't thought of the WWII connection either--that's really interesting. I have to admit, the ending ruined the book for me. I didn't buy it. And I was wondering about the memoir aspect of it too, and it seemed kind of self-justifying.

  • Love what you have written here and agree, but have to admit to feeling a little annoyed at the constant references to war, soldiers, battle in the novel. Especially in reference to the baby - "I'll have to bury him like a soldier who died at war." etc. At some point also began to feel that the writing was a sophomoric as the protagonist. Perhaps intentional but, as i posted, just left me cold. Bummer too because I loved the book in theory before actually reading it.

  • Richard: I'm finding it so fascinating what a wide variety of opinion we have on this one! It's actually one of the more interesting discussions, I think, for that reason. Looking back, I do agree that the first few chapters were the best, in terms of style and also the unexpected imagery that I connected with in this book. I did see more of a three-dimensional character progression than you did, I think - I liked the detail, for example, about Bird unconsciously mimicking the baby's head-scratching gestures as he starts to identify with it despite himself.

    Amy: The ending was odd, I agree. As I've commented a couple of other places, I thought of it more as Bird giving up & giving in, rather than turning his life around & growing up, which makes it creepier & (perhaps) more convincing? But I've no idea if my interpretation is correct! :-)

  • Frances: It seems like one of the divides between those who hated the novella & the others this time around is where we locate that juvenile/sophomoric quality - I also would have reacted badly if I perceived it as coming from the author rather than the character, but I felt like Oe works so hard to make Bird unsympathetic that there was a wall between character & author, despite the autobiographical subject matter. Oh well, it's interesting to get so many different perspectives on this one!

  • Emily, I sometimes unconsciously read your post last because I love reading the comments, they are as insightful as your posts! Interesting point you make there, in your reply to Frances. I also felt some things about the novel juvenile but you are actually right that if you perceive it as coming from the character and not from the author then it becomes something else entirely. Also, you are right about Oe trying hard to make Bird unsympathetic in that he shot overboard when he should've stayed within the lines. I truly felt disconnected with Bird, but somehow, separately, still sympathized with Oe. (Is this maybe because we've read a more recent work by him where his characters are not sophomoric?)

    Ultimately, I was disappointed with this book because I didn't love it as I thought I would. Still, I think it's a keeper since I want to read the progression of his books concerning his son, as we both mention. If I have not read Rouse Up before, though, I probably wouldn't pick up anything else by him. I'm so glad this wasn't the book I started with! :D

  • This sounds like a harsh book but still worth the effort and the discomfort.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography